Recently, I had the following conversation with my boyfriend:
Me: “I love to camp! Let’s quit your job and go camping for an entire year at different campgrounds across the United States. We can write a book about it!”
Him: “We don’t have any camping gear.”
Me: “Yes, we do. We have camping dishes and a dog.”
Him: “We can call the book, How We Accidentally Killed Our Beagle: A Year Of Camping.”
Okay, so neither my boyfriend (or my dog) are interested in excessive camping. But I am. Growing up, my family went on about one vacation every year. When money was tight, my parents would attach the pop-up camper to the back of our van and drive all five of us to a campground. Though I loved cooking over a fire, sleeping bags, and endless games of Connect Four—plus pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder—looking back I can see my parents picked some pretty generic campsites. Mostly, they were just black patches of dirt with enough space to park the car next to a circle of stones and a picnic table. After riding my bike all afternoon, it was difficult to tell exactly which of the 100 or so identical campsites belonged to my family. Campground amenities included a ranger’s station and a murky lake, maybe some hiking trails. There are some uninspired campgrounds out there.
But the good old U.S. of A. is also home to campgrounds with plenty of personality. There are tens of thousands of campsites in the United States, and the National Park Service is ramping things up to get ready for their centennial in 2016. A campground doesn’t have to be a National Park to be awesome, though clearly federal funding can’t hurt.
Here are seven of the country’s awesome campgrounds. BYO dog. It adds to the awesomeness.
Admit That You Watch “Swamp People”: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia and Florida
If Okefenokee were a movie, it would be an action film. The refuge’s recent history has included a couple massive wildfires; and the peat-filled wetland, named “Land of The Trembling Earth by the Choctaw Indians, is inherently unstable—trees and bushes actually shake from the shifting of the earth. The swamp is home to a massive array of wildlife: alligators, carnivorous plants, 64 species of reptiles, and bears. Campers can set up their tents on one of seven wooden platforms built directly over the swamp. If you really want to get in the spirit of living like a swamper, canoe over to the abandoned Chesser Homestead, where a family of settlers lived in the late 1800s. For an estimate of how many alligators you might see, check out this alligator forecast.
Get there: Several campsites are reachable by car. Bonus points if you can strap a canoe or kayak to the car’s roof. (More info.)
Stop it, Pervert: Big Bone Lick State Park, Kentucky
This campground is named, not for porn stars, but for the fossils found here. Around the time of the last Ice Age, enormous mammoths and mastodons lived, grazed, and licked salty mud to supplement their diets. Because the land was a marsh, some of the animals got stuck and died. In the 1700s, Europeans found fossils and (big) bones. Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis (you know, from Lewis and Clark) to bring some of these finds back to the White House. Today, scientists recognize Big Bone Lick as the “Birthplace of American Vertebrae Paleontology.” Campers can view fossils, teeth, and bones at the Outdoor Museum. Or skip that, and gawk at the herds of living buffalo near the sulfur springs.
Get there: Drive through Beaverlick. Yes, really. (More info.)
Everyone Knows It, But Still Worth It: Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim Campgrounds, Arizona
Inside the Grand Canyon National Park, campsites are available on the North and South rims of the canyon. The North Rim is further than the South Rim, but what you have from the North Rim is an unaltered view of the nation’s most superlative canyon. Some of the tents sites are as near as 20 feet from the edge—these probably wouldn’t be great for toddlers or sleepwalkers. Everyone else should book five months in advance for the sites with the best views. Of course, if you’re really hardcore, apply for a permit to spend the night below the rim. But wherever you camp, you’ll want that permit: heed this cautionary tale!
Get there: Vehicle access is allowed into the campsite or hike 1.5 miles carrying all your gear on your back. (More info.)
Stepping Back Into The 60s: Mystic Hot Springs, Utah
Particulars, like reservations, aren’t really the vibe at Mystic Hot Springs campground. Wonderfully, the website states that, while the bathtubs are cleaned every morning, the pools are cleaned “once or twice a week.” It’s honesty and flexibility like that which make Mystic Hot Springs an awesome campground. And of course, the natural springs of water that come out of the ground at 168 degrees Fahrenheit, for soaking in eight bathtubs built into rocks and two concrete pools. Oh, and you shouldn’t drink the calcium, magnesium, and iron rich water. Oh, okay, but only drink 1 oz per day, at the most.
Get there: Mystic Mike, the current owner of Mystic Hot Springs, first stumbled across the spot via a bus while driving to Denver from a Dead Head concert in Vegas. I suggest you do the same. (More info.)
Ancient States: Gallo Campground, Chaco Culture National Historic Site, New Mexico
Gallo campground is rugged. There is no shade in the desert. But there are petroglyphs, dramatic ruins, and unexcavated dwellings. There used to be a thriving culture here, with commerce, irrigation, sophisticated communications, and buildings constructed around solar and cardinal directions. Now, there are the remains of a once great civilization—and campgrounds. The massive buildings of ancient Pueblo people are still standing, left from 850 A.D, including Pueblo Bonito, which once had around 800 rooms and was several stories high. I’m not telling anyone to do anything disrespectful or illegal, especially because the Chaco is still used by native decendants as a sacred and religious place, but a little peyote would probably go a long way “at the center of an ancient world.”
Get there: Drive 13 miles down a rough dirt road in a car packed with food, firewood, and water. Supplies aren’t available inside the site. (More info.)
Your Name Is Mudd: Garden Key Campground, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
“Camping” on the beach is what alcoholics in Venice, California say they’re doing when they pass out on the sand. And that’s illegal. But sleeping on the beach at Dry Tortugas (the nation’s only at-sea national park) is not only legal and encouraged, but it only costs three American dollars each night. Even if you pass out from too many adult camping beverages, you’ll still be able to wake up and stumble into the ocean to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef. Serious divers have quick access to shipwrecks, shoals, and coral. History lovers, and those who love spooky ghosts will be interested in exploring nearby Fort Jefferson, which was built during the Civil War, and was once home to thousands of soldiers and prisoners, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, the traitor who helped John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln.
Get there: To get to the park from Key West you can take a sea plane or a boat shuttle. Look for dolphins! And turtles! (More info.)
You Fancy, Huh?: The Resort At Paws Up, Greenough, Montana
Montana + Spa + Camping = Glamping on a ranch. If you ever watched “Hey Dude” then you’re familiar with Mr. Ernst and ranches. You’re also familiar with that spoiled rich-girl brat Brad. Paws Up would be the kind of place she’d vacation with her family. Remember the episode where her dad bought her a convertible? Anyway, if you want to fall asleep amidst the sounds and smells of nature, but you also want to enjoy perks of massage, housekeeping, gourmet meals, and a butler, then you probably want to go glamping. Or, take your 1% lifestyle one step further and choose the option of renting a cabin (mansion) with a tent in the yard. Then take your friends out there with a bottle of Clos Du Mensil 1995 and say things like, “Oh, Brad! Remember that summer you worked on the ranch with Mr. Ernst? Why would anyone sleep in a tent, when there are mansions?” Then go back inside and do whatever it is that wealthy people do at night. Check your portfolio or something.
Get there: Land your private plane at Missoula International Airport. Look for a driver holding a placard with your last name near baggage claim. Get in the back of the car and complain about baggage restrictions on commercials flights. Or, drive yourself. (More info.)
With This Ring, I Thee Wed: Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin
Technically, this is number 8, but it should be included because my brother recently proposed to his girlfriend here. On a hike. During sunset. So. Take your kids camping and maybe they’ll grow up awesome and attract wonderful mates. And yes, the happy couple has a dog. Maybe they’ll honeymoon at Mystic Springs.
Get there: Be willing to totally open your heart and mind to another person with similar values. Or, drive.
Roadtrip related: Best Audiobooks and Best Gear
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Megan L. Wood uses her middle initial to distinguish herself from all the other women named Megan Wood. Top photo of Grand Canyon courtesy of Grand Canyon NPS; photos of Okefenokee Swamp by Moultrie Creek Jo Jakeman U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region; Big Bone Lick photo by PunkToad; photos of Chaco Culture National Historic Site by Jason Hickey and Angel Schatz; photo of Grand Canyon North Rim by AIHikes_AZ and Grand Canyon NPS; photos of Dry Tortugas National Park by Matt Kieffer and viadeb.